Story by Karen Evenden
CALGARY — Is there anything quite so garish as a pair of psychedelic blue, green and purple cowboy boots? I’m sure there is, but the fact that these boots are also electro-plated, made of sting-ray hide and finished with cream kangaroo leather really takes cowboy boots to a new dimension.
The creator of some of the world’s most amazing boots is the Alberta Boot Company, a family-run business located in Calgary. The company dates back to 1978 and is one of only three places in Canada that manufactures western-style boots on its own premises.
Wandering around the large store I was amazed with the sheer variety of boots on display. There seemed to be a pair in every colour combination imaginable.
Ben Gerwing, the assistant sales manager, showed me behind the scenes to find out more. On leaving the store front and entering the shoe factory, I was immediately transported to a different period in time. Amidst the comfortable smell of worn leather there were many workstations with small desks hidden under various materials.
It was a Saturday when I visited so the shoemakers had the day off. Perhaps this was the reason my imagination ran wild and I could visualize a number of small elves sitting at the desks, tolling away to the hum of the large machines nearby.
Ben brought me back to reality as he explained the whole boot-making process. Every boot is made of one hundred per cent real leather, right down to the heels, and over a hundred work hours are invested to ensure that each pair is made to the highest standards. In total the average pair of boots takes two to three weeks to produce.
With the typical retail cost of $260-$280 CAD per pair of boots and the number of work hours invested, it’s difficult to understand how this company makes money. When I tactfully expressed this concern to Ben he explained that they are actually very successful.
In 1999, the Alberta Boot Company secured the Royal Canadian Mounted Police boot maker and supplier contract. That means that every RCMP officer in Canada from Nunuvut to Newfoundland are wearing boots made in Calgary. The company also has other contracts with various municipal police forces across Canada and the US and their reputation as a quality supplier is growing continuously.
Maintaining and repairing the machinery themselves also helps, Ben explained. By continuing to manufacture boots the traditional way, the company relies on many of the older, reliable machines which were obviously built to a quality standard. The ‘stitching’ machines are all thirty to forty years old and the thread machine is a certified senior citizen, having reached the ripe old age of 70.
And of course, there is the rapidly growing business of customized boots. The Alberta Boot Company has built its reputation on being able to manufacture a pair of boots to the specification of the customer’s preference in leather and colour scheme.
The ‘Leather Room’ at the Alberta Boot Company is perhaps the most fascinating part of the tour. There are layers of soft, rich smelling leathers on every shelf in the small room, in a stunning array of colours and shades. Ben showed me ostrich, alligator and even rattlesnake ray leathers.
The Alberta Boot Company also makes boots for famous customers such as Kevin Costner and for actors from western style movies such as Legends of the Fall, Shanghai Noon and Brokeback Mountain. This type of customer increases demand for customized boots. Depending on the type of leather used and the hours invested, a pair of personalized boots can range from $1,500 upwards.
Of course being in the same city as one of Canada’s largest tourist attractions, the Calgary Stampede, it’s no surprise that the company’s busiest season is during a two-week period in the middle of July each year.
After seeing the love passion and hard work that goes into creating these boots, it’s inevitable that the Alberta Boot Company is a favourite store for western boot lovers worldwide; indeed their newest fans may be the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge after they were recently presented with their very own customized pair.
At the end of the tour I searched the store for what I thought looked to be the most outrageous pair of boots on display. Funny thing was that when I tried on these extraordinary creations … I really didn’t want to take them off again!